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Put a positive face on rising employee health costs

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With health insurance costs continuing to rise, you'll likely have to tell employees (again) that they'll shoulder more of the premium.

Such news isn't new for most employees. But they may be reaching the boiling point.

Unless you handle those announcements correctly, employees will think they're being treated unfairly. Communicating the latest round of cost increases could drive some employees to seek greener pastures with another employer. (A big New York company recently saw employees picket because of higher health premiums.)

You know the health-cost situation is the same everywhere, so how do you convey that? Here are three ways to soften the blow:

1. Explain the full cost of insurance. "We've insulated employees from the true cost of health care," says Martha Terry, a principal at consulting firm Towers Perrin.

The remedy? Show employees the costs for employee and employer contributions to their premiums, and explain why those costs are going up. Once employees realize they're paying only $230 a month of the $900 premium, they might not squawk so loud.

Also, don't surprise them with the news: Create a communication plan that starts several months before the changes kick in. Clarify what your organization is doing to curb costs, including shopping for better deals.

2. Tell them what they can do. Give employees a sense of control.

Example: "If we work together, we can lower your payments in the future."

Then, help them become better consumers of health care who make better choices. "The tendency of people when they buy insurance is to overbuy," Terry says. "We think we get more if we pay more ... Urge people to do their own analysis of their needs."

Other tips: Take advantage of your insurance provider's wellness education services; inform spouses by sending wellness and benefit info to employees' homes; and include employee reps on benefit-planning teams.

3. Mix in some good news. Survey employees about what benefits they'd like to have. Some may cost little or no money. Then talk with your execs about introducing new no-cost voluntary benefits at the same time you unveil new health premium hikes.

Also, point out all that their current health plan provides. "Health plans offer great resources beyond coverage: education support, health advocacy, wellness accounts," Terry says. "But we don't necessarily remind them of that regularly."  

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